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Ferguson: Saints sticking with winning formula in the Cup

We sat down with Northampton Saints coach Matt Ferguson, who takes charge of the men in Black, Green and Gold for this weekend’s Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final against London Irish on Friday evening…

Q: Last weekend was a rare one off for Northampton Saints, how did you spend it?
MF: By watching rugby! I got all of the Six Nations in, and managed to get a bit of downtime and a bit of family time. What you forget is, with the two days back-to-back, what a normal weekend looks like. We’re lucky that we get a day off in the week, normally, and then a day off at the weekend, but the two days back-to-back make it feel like you’ve had a bit of a break and there was plenty of rugby to watch on TV, which was even better.

Q: Just how rewarding was it for Saints to go into that break off the back of the victory at Leicester Tigers?
MF: We’ve talked all season about us trying to match that physicality, which we've had on occasion, with the accuracy and discipline that our game desires. For me, the Tigers result was the closest we’ve got to getting both of those parts of our game on the pitch at the same time. I think that’s why we ultimately got the result.

Q: It wasn’t a weekend off for all of Saints’ players, though, with plenty of them involved for Bedford Blues against London Scottish last Friday night…
MF: Yeah, it was a coaches’ night out on Friday night down to Bedford and we managed to watch that game there, which was great. It’s a nice different feeling to watch a game with a glass of lemonade in your hand, and not a water bottle, and it was really pleasing to see some of our young and more experienced players returning there. Again, that relationship we have with Bedford is just really fruitful and I think there are not many better places on a Friday night than Bedford to watch rugby.

Q: How difficult is team selection going to be for Friday night’s Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final against London Irish?
MF: We always want to pick a team to win, that’s what we do every week, but the actual competition allows you to pick anybody at this stage. There are no stipulations that you have to have played in the pool stages, and you could pick a full first-team XV. We’re going to stay very true to the policy that has got us here. We’ve already used the competition in a number of ways, as I’ve mentioned a number of times. For example, David Ribbans returned from injury, and he’s now in and around an England squad. On the other end of the spectrum, Henry Pollock was a 17-year-old getting his first taste of senior rugby. So our balance will be between those players returning, senior players who need game time – the Brandon Nansens, the Ehren Painters, and so on – all those players who we’ve drip-fed through the Cup competition, alongside some of the younger boys, is something that we’ll carry through for as long as this run takes us.

Q: Is it important to give some players some game time so they don’t go into their return to Gallagher Premiership action undercooked?
MF: There’s a balance there as well about what we can do within our training week, and how we can keep people fresh but also firing, because the run-in now is going to be crucial. One of the things Dows [Phil Dowson] said to the group on Monday morning is this game is the most important game of the season, not because it’s a semi-final but because it’s just the next game. I think that’s a great message and one that I’ve definitely been pushing with the group this week that, whoever is playing, it’s the next time Saints are playing, and let’s keep the momentum going.

Q: It also takes you back to the venue where Saints’ PRC campaign began back in September…
MF: Yes, that was interesting. We were probably in control of that match until the last three minutes, where a few things went against us, but one of the things you know about London Irish is that they’re a team that can score quickly and can score from anywhere. They probably are one of the most multi-threat teams in the league, where they have a really good set-piece, a really decent maul, yet they have more trick plays and moves from their line-out than any other team, and they have a really dangerous back three. If you look back to that first game and their selection, there were a few invited guests they had to use to fulfil [the game] and I’m pretty sure that won’t be happening for a home semi-final, so we could well be facing a very different Irish team. One thing I know for sure is the Irish DNA is pretty clear in how they like to play – they like to score quickly, and they’ve also had a couple of decent results recently.

Q: Has it been a bit easier to prepare for this game than the previous one against Irish, seeing as you’ve got to full week to do so this time, rather than playing midweek?
MF: Our general overview is that we spend more time looking at ourselves than we do opposition anyway. I’d probably be closer to naming the Irish team if we were playing them in the Premiership, in terms of knowing the players they’ve got. We don’t know who they’re going to pick, so we’ve looked more at styles, but actually that means we look inwards and more at ourselves and what we do. What we did last week as well, in the week off, was go back to a ‘Saints DNA’ week and talk about what are the parts of our game that we’ve been working on really hard. With James Craig that was around our maul and our maul-D, and then some of the great stuff Vassy [Ian Vass] has done with our defence. We had a real look at our game in that week and we’ve actually just carried that on because, regardless of who Irish or anyone picks against us, we showed in our last fixture that if we put our game on the pitch for long enough, and show the right amount of physicality and accuracy, we’re OK.

Q: Has this also given you a chance to work on some combinations for Friday?
MF: Absolutely, and again because we have kept this group pretty consistent and the same names have played in it. People stop me in the street and say, ‘that was a great PRC game’ – and you shouldn’t be surprised by that. We don’t do anything different, it’s not different players, they’re Saintsmen, we’re playing the Saints way, and we prepare in the same way. Some of the best rugby that you’ll see at Franklin’s Gardens is on Pitch 2 on a Thursday afternoon when it’s Saints vs the Wanderers (those not in the first team that week). That’s the best rugby in the week because those sessions are hugely intense and brutal, and all that happens this week is that some of those guys that have been defending for the last few weeks are getting their chance in a starting shirt. It’s all about us and the beauty of these kind of fixtures is they’re a continuation of us and this game will be treated no differently in its preparation and its importance than the East Midlands Derby.

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